People who do get to the top are those who learn to be reflective and purposeful

People who do get to the top are those who learn to be reflective and purposeful

In the previous post, I referred to a February 2002 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Beware the Busy Manager”.  In their research, authors Heike Burch and Sumantra Ghoshal studied managers from a dozen large companies for nearly 10 years, to see how efficiently and effectively they were spending their time.  The general conclusion of the study is somewhat alarming: a mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner.  The remaining 90% squander time in all sorts of ineffective activities and practices.

Burch and Ghoshal group the non-purposeful managers into three categories: the procrastinators, the distracted, and the disengaged.  While I need not go into the detail of the profile for each of these categories, after reading the article one is left with the overall impression that large numbers of managers appear to be working hard, when in fact they are filling their time with activity that is often unfocused and nearly meaningless.  According to the authors, part of this serious management deficiency stems from the cultures of our organizations.  Sometimes workplaces seem to reward frantic activity, and there can even be great pressure on managers to stay busy, or at least to look busy.

When I reread the Burch and Ghoshal piece last week, it led me to reflect on two subjects that have been on my mind quite a lot recently.  The first subject concerns the way we have come to spend our time in this modern, wired world.  And, the second subject is how we teach and organize programs at graduate schools of business.  In particular, how are we asking students to spend their time during their masters degree programs, and does it make sense?

The first question, concerning how efficiently we spend time in today’s connected world, brings to mind the behavior patterns of two of the HBR article’s management types—the procrastinators and the distracted.

Procrastinators are not simply people who fail to get things done because they put them off until later.  They are often individuals who hide behind the rush of minutiae in daily business life, accomplishing small tasks all day long while avoiding the more difficult or significant challenges, simply because they are “too busy”, or afraid to take them on.  The distracted, as well, may be constantly busy, even frantically so, but not purposeful, and certainly not reflective enough to make wise choices about the activities they should be focusing on.

In today’s world, it is ever easier for the procrastinator or the distracted manager to appear busy all the time, without being at all purposeful.  With a constant flood of email, text, and voice messages pouring in on our smart phones, we can stay on the go, and look energetic and reactive, simply by responding in real time to what comes across our screens.

By focusing our attention downward at our BlackBerries and iPhones, we certainly do look busy.  But, I wonder if the constant connection, and the smart devices of the Internet Age, may actually be diverting our attention and preventing us from accomplishing some of the truly meaningful work.  And how much of our quick-response behavior, so admired by many individuals and companies in today’s fast-moving times, would constitute “purposeful” action?

Picking up the HBR article again brought to mind Lucy Kellaway’s observation during the BlackBerry Blackout (see my post from November 4), an observation that is worth repeating here: If you are the sort of person endlessly looking at messages on a small screen, you are not the sort of person to get to the top anyway.

My research and coaching experience have shown me time and again that the people who do get to the top are those who learn to be reflective and purposeful.  They take the time to step back from the flow of information in order to think about the significance of it all, and to actively decide how they should be spending their time.  It is in their reflective moments–in the time away from the email, the tweets and the text messages–that they are able to figure out how they can put true meaning in their work and in their lives.

As for my second question, how we organize graduate programs and teach business students, it is certainly related to the question of how we are spending our time these days.  If those who emerge as leaders in our companies are people who learn to be reflective and purposeful, should we not be helping our students learn and master these traits?

So, next week, we will take a bit of a closer look at the education question.

1 Comment

  1. Jo Moss 12 years ago


    Great blog. Very much in tune with my line of thinking….. Am building a coaching company so there may be something for us to do together on this subject!

    speak soon,

    Jo x

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